Shattered Hopes: A Farewell to European Arms Control?

Even before Russia intervened in Ukraine, European arms control was in trouble. Russia and the West were accusing one another of violating the letter and the spirit of existing agreements. Moscow complained about NATO’s ballistic missile defenses (BMD), conventional military deployments in former Soviet bloc states, and other measures Russians described as threatening. NATO governments hoped for, though probably never expected, Moscow’s cooperation in building joint missile defenses and reducing Russia’s large inventory of tactical nuclear weapons, and thought, too optimistically, that they could assuage Moscow’s irritation at having lost its superpower status. 

Now, these illusions have succumbed to the harsh reality of war in Ukraine. NATO leaders worry that Moscow is seeking to subvert neighboring countries and is violating arms control agreements to weaken the Atlantic Alliance’s cohesion. At present, NATO and Russia have suspended their main direct arms control talks and are undertaking major military buildups directed at each other. There are no prospects of new European arms control agreements anytime soon. If anything, the coming years could see the failure of existing treaties without their renewal or replacement. 


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Perhaps the most serious gap between NATO and Russia has been in the realm of strategic defense. Russians claim that the alliance’s BMD systems threaten their offensive nuclear forces despite NATO’s longstanding insistence that they do not have the intent or capacity to target Russia’s large and sophisticated nuclear missile arsenal. Moscow’s diplomats have been trying to heavily constrain if not eliminate Western missile defense programs since Soviet days. 

The most recent Russian campaign against NATO’s BMD started a decade ago. Since then, senior Russian government officials, military officers, and policy analysts have presented an escalating range of complaints regarding US missile defenses in Europe. Although the Obama administration’s 2010 BMD Review and NATO statements insist that these BMD capabilities are not aimed at Russia, policymakers in Moscow continue to insist that any Western BMD deployments near Russia’s European periphery intend to intercept Russian missiles. For reasons of pride and history, Russians refuse to accept that these defenses are aimed at threats from Iran or some other country. They believe NATO will use the pretext of defending the BMD assets to deploy additional conventional military infrastructure close to Russia, could rapidly replace the defensive interceptors with offensive ballistic missiles that could attack nearby targets in Russia with minimal warning time for the defenders, and could rapidly increase the number of BMD systems near Russia regardless of how limited the initial deployment. 

Some Russians genuinely fear the prospect of an American technological coup that would render the Russian missile fleet vulnerable to NATO defenses. Russian worst-case planners conjure scenarios in which the Atlantic Alliance launches a first strike against Moscow’s strategic forces, leaving only a few remaining Russian missiles for NATO defenses to deal with. There are suspicions, however, that some Russians, including President Vladimir Putin, find it convenient to exaggerate NATO military threats to mobilize patriotic support for Russia’s military-industrial system and defense spending. In any case, Russians cite NATO missile defenses as a reason to keep large numbers of nuclear weapons, including shorter-range systems as well as ICBMs. 


After a July 2014 State Department report accused Russia of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which prohibited Washington and Moscow from producing or flight-testing any ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500–5,500 kilometers, NATO stated at its summit three months later: “It is of paramount importance that disarmament and non-proliferation commitments under existing treaties are honored . . . . In that regard, Allies call on Russia to preserve the viability of the INF Treaty through ensuring full and verifiable compliance.” 

The Russian government has denied allegations that it has tested prohibited missiles and has since spuriously accused the United States of violating the treaty through its testing of BMD systems with target missiles having INF-prohibited ranges and for its impending deployment of missile interceptors in Romania that could theoretically be reconfigured to launch INF-range cruise missiles.

In the past, Russians had complained that none of the many other countries that have acquired intermediate-range missiles during the 25 years since the INF Treaty was adopted have accepted its limitations. They also argue that, unlike the United States, which faces no threat from such missiles from nearby countries, Russia’s  neighbors, including India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, North Korea, and China, have large numbers of these intermediate-range missiles. A decade ago, some Russian policymakers indicated that they might unilaterally withdraw from the treaty unless other countries acceded to it, though they have since dropped that threat. In 2007, Washington and Moscow joined in a modest effort at the UN to induce other countries to join the INF Treaty, but none did. NATO is now considering military countermeasures to ensure that Russia does not gain any advantages should it actually deploy INF-banned missiles. 


The tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) stalemate between NATO and Russia is longstanding. These weapons—also referred to as “theater,” “short-range,” or “battlefield” nuclear weapons but known formally as “non-strategic nuclear weapons”—lack a universal definition, although the term generally includes those weapons having shorter ranges (less than 500 kilometers) than those prohibited by the INF Treaty. They could include warheads launched by short-range missiles or mortars as well as bombs dropped by non-strategic bombers. During the Cold War, NATO and the Soviet Union saw these weapons as potentially useful for military operations and deterrence, stockpiling tens of thousands of them.

To contribute to intra-alliance harmony and allow NATO members without nuclear weapons to participate in the alliance’s nuclear policies, NATO developed a doctrine of “nuclear-sharing” in which the United States agreed to allow some member countries that did not have their own nuclear forces access to these weapons in a war or crisis. In turn, their governments agreed to base them on their territory and acquire their own means of delivering them—currently, specially equipped fighter bombers. Since the Cold War, NATO has reportedly eliminated almost all of these weapons, which most experts believe no longer have a military purpose given the alliance’s powerful conventional forces. The United States now has only a single nuclear gravity bomb deliverable by land-based aircraft. 

Until Russia alarmed NATO members by annexing the Crimean Peninsula and supporting separatists in Ukraine, there had been a strong movement in the alliance to remove the last remaining TNW from Europe to promote nuclear disarmament, save money, and reduce intra-alliance burden-sharing tensions (over time, a decreasing number of NATO countries have been willing to host these weapons). The main argument for keeping some of NATO’s TNW has until recently been the need to reassure a few countries near Russia and to induce Moscow to reduce its own larger arsenal of these weapons through some type of mutual agreement.

No formal treaty applies to Russian or US TNW. The most important measure constraining these weapons dates from 1991, when the US and Russian presidents agreed to eliminate many but not all of these systems. Yet these Presidential Nuclear Initiatives are not formal arms control agreements; for example, they do not have provisions for verifying compliance such as on-site inspections or mandatory data exchanges. 

At times, US officials have complained that the Russian government has not provided sufficient information to substantiate claims of having made further TNW reductions. Arms control advocates have feared that small size, scattered location, relative mobility, and perhaps weaker security and safety features render these weapons more at risk for terrorist seizure than strategic nuclear warheads. They also worry that Russian or US commanders might be more inclined to use these weapons for war-fighting due to their small yield and vulnerability to loss or preemption. In contrast, the Russian government criticizes NATO nuclear-sharing as violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prohibits helping non-nuclear weapons states from acquiring nuclear weapons. Moscow also notes that, whereas all Russian TNW are located on Russian territory and not deployed within range of US territory, US TNW in Europe are situated near Russia, making them “strategic” weapons from Moscow’s perspective.

Russia eliminated many of the non-strategic weapons that it inherited from the Cold War and removed other TNW from operational deployment, but analysts estimate that the Russian military still retains several thousands of such weapons—up to ten times more than the United States likely deploys in Europe. If operational, these TNW can be launched by short-range missiles, dropped from the air as gravity bombs, loaded onto torpedoes or other tactical naval weapons, or otherwise delivered by non-strategic systems (though whether Russia has the rumored “suitcase nukes” is still unclear). 

Russian policymakers have suggested that they still see value in having their TNW for purposes such as deterring a NATO attack, defeating NATO BMD systems, and compensating for Russia’s conventional-force weaknesses in a possible conflict with NATO, China, or other countries. Given the many benefits that Moscow derives from its TNW, Russian officials would likely require major NATO concessions to relinquish, reduce, or otherwise restrict them—for instance, the limitation of NATO’s missile defenses, attack aircraft, or the French and British national nuclear systems, as well as the elimination of US non-strategic nuclear weapons, at least from Europe but perhaps worldwide to prevent the Pentagon from returning nuclear bombs to Europe in a crisis. At present, both Russia and the United States are modernizing some of their TNW (the US B-61 bomb and the Russian Iskander-M short-range missile) to extend their lifespans and expand their nuclear options. 


The mutual NATO-Russian accusations of treaty violations and maneuvering for military advantage extend to the non-nuclear realm. On March 10th of this year, the Russian delegation announced it would no longer participate in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, whose adoption in late 1990 helped consolidate the end of the Cold War and establish an environment conducive to security cooperation between Russia and the West. The treaty mandated major reductions in European armaments and established a system of confidence-building measures that have reduced fears of surprise conventional attacks throughout the continent.

Moscow’s decision to violate the CFE Treaty has been in the making for years; in 2007, Russia ceased complying with the treaty’s data exchange and inspection mechanisms and demanded that NATO either accept the revised CFE Treaty adopted at the November 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul or work with Moscow to draft an entirely new accord. According to Moscow, one of the original treaty’s main flaws was the presumed permanence of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The amended CFE Treaty would apply to individual countries rather than to blocs. 

Moscow also wants the treaty to regulate the armaments of the new NATO member states, such as the Baltic countries, which joined the alliance after the original CFE Treaty came into force. But NATO members have refused to ratify the adapted treaty until Russia removes its combat troops from Georgia and Moldova, a violation of the Helsinki Final Act’s prohibition against stationing military forces in another country without its consent. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin had pledged at the 1999 Istanbul summit to remove these forces, but Russian officials have since argued that unfavorable security considerations in both regions have made such a withdrawal imprudent. After Russia rejected various NATO proposals to revive the talks, NATO leaders stopped fulfilling their CFE Treaty obligations regarding Russia in November 2011.

Now Russian officials have lost interest in the 1999 text and demand an entirely new treaty. In their defense, Russians have pointed to the undeniable obsolescence of some treaty provisions due to post-1990 geopolitical developments such as NATO’s membership enlargement to encompass former Warsaw Pact countries. They also want to update the weapons limited by the treaty to include carrier-based airplanes, unmanned aircraft systems, and precision-guided munitions—weapons whose number, capabilities, and location are not constrained directly by existing arms control agreements, and in which NATO has an advantage. But NATO governments still insist on Russia’s withdrawing troops from countries where they lack host-nation consent. 

In addition, paramilitary forces in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and most recently Ukraine have weapons that are limited by the CFE Treaty but are at present not accountable. Russia has supplied these fighters with arms. More recently, NATO has taken issue with Russia’s large-scale surprise military exercises. The Russian military says these “snap” drills aim to test their force’s day-to-day readiness, but the drills could facilitate the kind of surprise attack the CFE Treaty was designed to prevent. The Russian military used snap drills to cover its military reinforcement of the Crimean Peninsula in early 2014 and later to prevent Ukrainian government forces from concentrating against the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. NATO stopped conducting such large no-notice military exercises following the Cold War. 


In the years before the Ukraine crisis, NATO governments did not press Moscow too vigorously to resolve these arms control disputes, reflecting the divergence between Russia and the West regarding the state of the European security environment. Whereas Moscow was fundamentally dissatisfied with the European security environment and Russia’s strategic isolation in a NATO-dominated European security architecture, most Western leaders did not make a major effort to address Moscow’s concerns since they did not perceive a near-term military threat from Russia. Now, following Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, NATO leaders do worry about a potential Russian military threat and have pre-deployed more military equipment near Russia, despite Moscow’s objections. With the increase in tensions, there is now no sustained high-level official effort to restore or replace this fraying European arms control architecture.

However welcome it may be, the sustained Russian-NATO cooperation in the nuclear negotiations with Iran has limited potential to resolve these fundamental differences. In a July 14th press conference in Vienna on the same day the Iran negotiations were concluded, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argued that, with the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran diminished, NATO no longer needed extensive missile defenses. One suspects that some Europeans will agree with Lavrov’s conclusion since more urgent threats to European security exist. In addition, many European countries facing large debts and a vulnerable multinational currency will want to save money and reduce tensions with Russia. 

The day after Lavrov’s statement, however, US officials said that they planned to continue with their European missile defense plans despite the Iranian nuclear agreement. According to the deal, other countries can resume selling ballistic missile technologies to Iran eight years after the deal enters into force. Even before then, Iran will keep its existing missile arsenal, sustain its indigenous missile R&D program, and perhaps continue its illicit missile procurement channels. Conversely, if Washington restructures its European BMD program yet again due to the Iran deal, it will deepen European concerns about the credibility of US defense commitments. Furthermore, Russian concerns about US missile defenses now extend to the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, which will not soon be solved. 

Russia-Western arms control differences also extend to other weapon systems and activities beyond the European continent. Russian officials have expressed growing concern about US precision-guided weapons, unmanned robotic systems, hypersonic vehicles, and prompt global strike capabilities. Russian analysts claim that, though these are conventional systems, they have strategic potential because they could be used to attack a country’s nuclear deterrent more effectively than more traditional, though less capable, conventional weapons (like tanks) or nuclear weapons (such as long-range ballistic missiles) controlled by existing arms agreements. Whereas US officials want the next major nuclear arms reduction agreement after New START to include only Russia and the United States, Russian negotiators demand that other nuclear weapons states—such as Britain, China, and France—become subject to more formal constraints through a multilateral rather than bilateral negotiating process. Russian objections to US missile defenses also extend to US BMD initiatives in Asia, the Middle East, and North America, but US policymakers have justified US missile defense programs based on the non-Russian threats in these regions. Despite mutual concerns about nuclear terrorism, Moscow no longer allows US government agencies to dismantle or better secure Russia’s retired Soviet-era nuclear systems and has ceased participating in the Nuclear Security Summits.

Both Russian and NATO leaders see a multipolar world in which dozens of states are acquiring ballistic missiles, weapons of mass destruction, and other strategic capabilities that during the Cold War were largely monopolized by NATO and the Soviet Union. Russian and NATO experts also agree that many countries seek these capabilities to deter Western military intervention through anti-access and area-denial strategies and by holding Western countries and their allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East hostage to missile strikes and other threats. But Moscow likely welcomes this constraint, which can hinder further Kosovo- and Libya-style Western military interventions that proceed despite Russian objections. In contrast, NATO policymakers want military options to use limited force to avert humanitarian crises, as in Kosovo or Libya, to prevent the use of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, as in Syria, and generally to make the world safer and more secure in conformity with Western liberal democratic norms. 

Richard Weitz is the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis, an adjunct senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, and an expert with Wikistrat. 



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